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My Favourite Planet > Blogs > Edwin Drood's Column > May 2010
back Edwin Drood's Column
27 May 2010
NASA Pioneer spacecraft plaque at Edwin Drood's Column
“Where is everybody?”

(Enrico Fermi)
In which Drood, not having discovered much intelligent life here, resolves to search elsewhere
and is neither comforted by Copernicus, nor the SETI Institute, nor Dr Drake.

If someone someday presents conclusive proof that we are alone in the universe, this writer, if still alive, will be deeply sad: no E.T., no phone home, no abductions replete with all the odd prurience that goes with the idea that “they” might be fascinated enough by our mammalian reproductive system to run some tests, no chariots of fire over the Mexican desert, no wrestling with angels ... the list is long. And yet it must be said that our neighbours have been inordinately unforthcoming. Despite our avid interest in them they seem to show precious little real interest in us beyond a fly-by now and again for a quick check of the old fallopian tubes and off they go.

Are we too dull or too primitive or both? Are they really that uninterested or are they simply shy? Are they perhaps afraid of us? We are a belligerent little species after all and maybe the fact that their ships are way cooler than an iPhone 4GS doesn’t of itself give them sufficient edge. After all, most of Vlad the Impaler’s enemies were cooler than him, but it didn’t help them much, anymore than it helped Giordano Bruno who was burned at the stake in 1600 for suggesting that alien existence is mathematically irrefutable. Or are our neighbours waiting to know for sure what they should include in the hamper the day they officially drop by to welcome us to the galaxy?
Bats in my decoder
Maybe they’re still trying to find a gearing ratio large enough to tune their language down to a speed and format we might be able to understand. Whether they are performing this complex task in government research labs, as the loony fringe likes to imagine, or out in the boonies of the Milky Way somewhere, is an issue of some consequence for our future mutual communication. It’s a bad idea to write a phrasebook in a vacuum, you can end up with a helicopter full of eels. It’s also a very bad idea to program your language decoder using information gained from an “abductee”. It’s tough figuring out what the different types of high-pitched scream actually mean, as any new parent can tell you.

It is also much more satisfying, for three reasons, to believe that aliens are here in secret labs working away to improve our hardware and that the authorities are hiding the truth about these extra-terrestrial guests from us: firstly, insofar as they are capable of concealing such a weighty matter, it leaves the impression that government is itself an intelligent life-form, which is an essentially comforting thought. Secondly it is gratifying to believe that extraterrestrials are not so alien as to be unfamiliar with the correct channels for doing diplomatic business. Thirdly, the idea of our grey-skinned neighbours enjoying a stir-fry with the Obamas helps to confirm both our instinctive distrust of authority for not inviting us and an equally instinctive belief that, in full accordance with the principles of Copernican Mediocrity, anything “out there” is more likely to be into Thai food than havoc and mayhem.

Because if we indeed are, as a Wikipedia article suggests: “a relatively ordinary planet orbiting a relatively ordinary star in a relatively ordinary galaxy, which is one of countless others in a giant (but relatively ordinary) universe”, then our relatively ordinary neighbours are more likely to be influenced by our mediocrity than we are by their exceptional status, mind-boggling kit and gorgeous eyes. Unfortunately, dumbing-down is every bit as likely to be an inter-galactic phenomenon as a parochial one. Copernican Mediocrity, like gravity, prevails.
Six and the SETI
Dr Frank Drake offers six parameters to be balanced in his famous equation designed to ascertain the density of ‘intelligent life-supporting’ planets and the emergence of civilizations, to wit: the rate of formation of suitable stars, the fraction of those stars which are orbited by planets, the number of Earth-like worlds per planetary system, the fraction of planets where intelligent life develops, the fraction of possible communicative planets and the "lifetime" of possible communicative civilizations. Only three things are needed to wipe out the entire, stunning house of potentially very large numbers that are left, even after all Drake’s six parameters have been accounted for: Gamma Rays, the Peter Principle and Murphy’s Law.
Gamma ray storms caused by imploding stars or suns having a bad corona day can and do regularly sterilize entire galaxies, many of which may have already developed highly advanced civilizations with perfectly functioning interplanetary parliamentary democracies run by coalitions of even more than two parties.

The Peter Principle will ensure that whoever gets promoted far enough up the pay scale to lead a diplomatic, or even punitive expedition (after all, we broadcast John Denver at them for years) to our little earth will probably be too incompetent to find us but will likely find something else instead, such as the galactic equivalent of America.

And finally, Murphy’s Law will ensure that if they, against all other odds, finally succeed in getting here after an intergalactic journey of eons (because even if you take the new hyperpass round Gideon Tertillus and bear left at Midas Mount onto the Gigabahn A374, it’s still a really long way, believe me), everything that can go wrong will have gone wrong in reverse order of importance: leaving them no can openers, no decoders, no microwave transmission, no firepower and no way back. Hope they like stir fried prawns in garlic sauce.

© Edwin Drood, 27 May 2010

Illustration: The Pioneer plaque. These gold-anodized aluminum plaques were attached to the U.S. unmanned spacecraft Pioneer 10 (launched 1972 - the first man-made object to leave our solar system) and Pioneer 11 (1973), depicting human figures and symbols designed to provide information to any extraterrestrials who found them about the probes' place of origin, the creatures who made them and their current state of scientific knowledge.

Presumably, the aliens would then immediately begin planning a massive clothing and textiles
export drive to naked Earthlings. Some advanced semiotic technology would also not go amiss, guys.

Image source: © NASA
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